The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Notable Books for 2023 have been announced.

Follow the links to those books I have already reviewed or interviewed the author or illustrator at PaperbarkWords blog.

NB I will add reviews and interviews here and on the Inside the 2023 Shortlist page on the blog (once the shortlist is announced) until the winners are announced in Book Week in August.

Congratulations to those creators who have been longlisted. Sincere commiserations to those who have created great books but have missed out on these awards.

Younger Readers

The Jammer by Nova Weetman (University of Queensland Press) Review and author interview

Runt by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin) Author interview

Evie and Rhino by Neridah McMullin, ill. Astred Hicks (Walker Books Australia) Author interview

What About Thao? by Oliver Phommavanh (Penguin Random House Australia) Author interview & complete interview in Magpies magazine, March 2023

What Snail Knows by Kathryn Apel (University of Queensland Press) Author interview about verse novels & further interview to come in Magpies magazine, July 2023

No Words by Maryam Master (Pan Macmillan Australia) Guest author post

August & Jones by Pip Harry (Hachette Australia) Guest author post

The Bravest Word by Kate Foster (Walker Books Australia) Guest author post

Big Magic by Sarah Armstrong (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing) Guest author post

The Wintrish Girl by Melanie La’Brooy (University of Queensland Press) Guest author post

Xavier in the Meantime by Kate Gordon (Riveted Press) Author interview in Magpies magazine May 2022 (extract below); author interview about Whalesong ; guest author post about Indigo in the Storm (companion novel to Aster’s Good, Right Things and Xavier in the Meantime) on the way

Zadie Ma and the Dog Who Chased the Moon by Gabrielle Wang (Penguin Random House Australia) Author interview about Children’s Laureate, extended interview in the Weekend Australian, March 2022 (behind the paywall)

Other books from this list to feature soon

Older Readers

The Museum of Broken Things by Lauren Draper (Text Publishing) Author interview

Unnecessary Drama by Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing) Author interview

The Not So Chosen One by Kate Emery (Text Publishing) Guest author post

Where You Left Us by Rhiannon Wilde (University of Queensland Press) Author interview Magpies magazine November 2022 (extract at the end of this post)

Other books from this list to feature soon

Picture Book of the Year

The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley (WestWords) Author interview, & complete interview in Magpies magazine March 2022

Our Dreaming ill. Dub Leffler, text. Kirli Saunders (Scholastic Australia) Book review

Open Your Heart to Country by Jasmine Seymour (Magabala Books) Author interview

Egg ill. Harrison Vial, text. Clare Atkins (University of Queensland Press) Author interview

When You’re Older ill. Judy Watson, text. Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin) Guest illustrator post

Koala Ark by Stephen Michael King (Scholastic Australia) Author/illustrator interview in Magpies magazine September 2022 (extract below)

Be Careful, Xiao Xin! ill. Sher Rill Ng, text. Alice Pung (HarperCollins Publishers) My review in Magpies (reproduced below); extensive interview with author & illustrator to come (Magpies September 2023)

Other books from this list to feature soon

Eve Pownall Award

The Voyage of Whale and Calf by Vanessa Pirotta, ill. Samantha Metcalfe( CSIRO Publishing) Book review

Off to the Market by Alice Oehr (Scribble Kids’ Books) My review for Books + Publishing

Other books from this list to feature soon

Early Childhood

How Do You Say I Love You? by Ashleigh Barton, ill. Martina Heiduczek (HarperCollins Publishers) Author interview in Magpies magazine, September 2022

Jigsaw: A Puzzle in the Post by Bob Graham (Walker Books Australia) Book review on the way

Jack’s Jumper by Sara Acton (Walker Books Australia) Book review on the way

Other books from this list to feature soon


The 2023 CBCA shortlist will be announced on 28th March. The winners will be announced in Book Week in August.

2023 Notables at the CBCA

Thank you to the publishers who have kindly sent me review copies and to the authors and illustrators who have responded so generously by answering interview questions and writing about their books.


Supplementary Resources

Koala Ark by Stephen Michael King (Scholastic Australia)

Joy Lawn interviews Stephen Michael King about his picture books (extract from interview in Magpies magazine, September 2022)

“As dusk arrived … the first drops of rain began to fall. Tomorrow the sky would be blue, and soon … the earth would renew.” (Koala Ark)

You have created many animal characters in your books. Bears appear most recently in Bear and Rat by Christopher Cheng and in Rainbow Bear; dogs most recently in Three, and Barney by Catherine Jinks; and you’ve devised a menagerie of pigs, a snail, turtle, giraffe and dancing cat. Your new picture book Koala Ark features Australian native animals. Koala rescues the billabong friends and others in his ark-boat in this important, heart-warming story. Is this your first book where you have put our native animals in the foreground? Why?

My first Bear was A Bear and a Tree. I needed a father figure, a big one. He represented my dad, who was dying of cancer at the time. The whitness of a polar bear in a snow filled landscape meant he could be read as being in the child’s (main character’s) imagination. Christopher Cheng asked for a Panda Bear. At first, I was concerned about panda’s naturally sad eyes, as I didn’t want the book to be sombre. There were many sketches to check that poses would work between a tiny character (rat) and a rather large one (Bear) before the book went ahead. It grew into one of my favourite books. 

Someone once wrote a review of Rainbow Bear saying that Stephen Michael King had made a mistake: “Penguins don’t live with Polar Bears”. This actually concerned me because “in the land of ice and snow”, they can. Pigs and giraffes happily live there together too. All the world’s that I create are culturally diverse. Speaking of giraffes, I love them because they’re giant dinosaur-like creatures (with spots) who are gentle vegetarians at heart, and they look great in waistcoats.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t created a story about Australian characters before. I live on a coastal strip, on an island surrounded by a creek, river and ocean. During the 2019-2000 fires, our island was surrounded by fire on all sides, except the sea. The koala population in the Manning Valley was decimated. I couldn’t write anything else! After watching my immediate community fight fire at its doorstep and hearing of a small school I’d talked at (Bobin), burn to the ground – I couldn’t write anything else. Making one of our most vulnerable creatures the hero of my story was a must.

Please tell us about your epilogue to Koala Ark (can be viewed on Stephen’s Facebook).

A percentage of my upfront fee has been donated to Koala Recovery. I’ve recently painted a number of small pictures of the Koalas (post publication) involved in a regeneration project. I’ll be selling them soon (when I’m organised), and all proceeds will go to “Koala’s in Care” (a local care organisation) and “Koala Ark” (affiliated with the Australian Reptile Park).

You clearly put thought and effort into your endpapers. Which are you very pleased with and why?

The endpapers in Koala Ark set the scene. They also move us through time — day, then night, and by page one, the sun is burning bright. By that first page, the reader has already been on a journey. I believe in beautiful books. The covers I design are quieter than others. It’s a bit like me as a person. I quietly work away at creative play most days. But if you break my barrier, you’ll find a world of colour inside. Too much colour needs vignettes or a quiet contemplative spread. My books are me. “I am a DJ. I am what I play”. (David Bowie)


Where You Left Us by Rhiannon Wilde (UQP)

Extract from my interview with Rhiannon Wilde (interview by Joy Lawn in Magpies magazine, November 2022):

Death and mental illness affect your major characters and their families. Please give an example from your book.

Scarlett in Where You Left Us experiences panic attacks and social anxiety, something I’ve wanted to write about since my own teenaged years, and something that affects so many young people. I wanted to take her on a journey that saw her accept her anxiety as part of her, and start to try to work with it and develop healthy coping strategies to still do the things she really wants to do in her life. This is easier said than done, so I also wanted to show the messiness of that journey and that messiness on that journey is normal and okay.

Scarlett and Cinnamon are both grieving the loss of their grandmother Maggie, which wounds them both in a way that has pulled them apart until they’re able to process their loss, individually and then together. Grief interests me because of the way it ripples out and affects almost all areas of our lives, especially the first few times we experience it which is what Maggie’s passing is for the Prince sisters.

Their father, Ian, is in the midst of a depressive episode, which is another aspect of mental health experienced by myself and people closest to me that I wanted to explore. Through Ian’s arc, I wanted to try and show the small imperfect ways we slowly heal and see cracks of light come back during such a mental health time, and that there’s no right way to survive or be ‘better’.

What are some other issues, themes or concerns that run through your work?

Relationships and first love are themes I love to explore and have done in both books, as well as themes around identity, and finding one’s place in the world (something I’m still in my late twenties doing!). In both books I tried to have teenaged characters who don’t necessarily know exactly what they want to do with their lives, because that uncertainty is something I remember so vividly from my own teen years. I was terrified of getting it ‘wrong’, and perhaps that’s why in my work I like to show that there’s actually no real way to get it wrong, because there’s always options or different paths you can take, or things in life that surprise you and put you where you’re meant to be.

Scarlett Prince is coming home.

Unwillingly. Highly unwillingly. Just for the summer. Just between the end of school and the rest of her life.

Scarlett loved school. The routine and certainty of it, structured days sliding into quiet nights: homework, read, bed. She doesn’t feel remotely ready to Make a Mark on the Real World now that school is done. She doesn’t even know how to make more than one type of sandwich. (Where You Left Us)

What would you like to tell young people who are struggling with life?

Keep going. You’re doing so well. It will be okay, eventually, and probably one day be so much better you won’t believe it. No feeling is forever. There’s plenty of time to do all the things you want to do.  You’re valid and loved, and the world needs to hear what you have to say.


Be Careful, Xiao Xin! (2022)

Alice Pung, ill. Sher Rill Ng, HarperCollins Publishers

Review by Joy Lawn in Magpies magazine

Alice Pung OAM writes books that span genres and age groups. Among them are One Hundred Days, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin literary award; Laurinda, winner of the 2016 Ethel Turner Prize for young adult literature; and series fiction for children. Be Careful, Xiao Xin! is her first picture book.

Sher Rill Ng is a digital illustrator best known for her picture book, Our Little Inventor, which has been adapted into an opera for children. Her illustrative style is inspired by 2D animated film and is engaging as well as expressive.

Be Careful, Xiao Xin! is the vanguard of quality Australian bilingual picture books. The parallel English and Chinese-language scripts are given equal weight in this tale about a boy whose family’s mantra is Be careful!  

Xiao Xin cannot do anything without being told to be careful. His parents panic when he climbs a high rope bridge, warn him away from pool water and tell him to slow down. When he sees the affirmation that a family give their muddy son who has bleeding knees after a game of footie, he wonders if his parents love him less than other parents love their children. He ponders the meaning of his name, Xiao Xin – Little Heart. Although small on the outside he knows that inside he is a Red Fire Warrior who can do infinite things.

He wants to save his little sister from coddling and cocooning, realising that fear of failing will prevent her from taking risks, learning and succeeding. However, the illustrations show why the family is fearful. They have seen or experienced hunger, cold, danger and the suffering of refugees.

Xiao Xin’s red clothing symbolises his burning desire for independence and becomes the core of his costume as the Red Fire Warrior. Other colours, and reflections of figures in the pictures are significant. Throughout the book the illustrations extend the text. They are thoughtfully composed with some inspiration from Ghibli, the Japanese animation film studio, to show emotion, growth and action.

Be Careful, Xiao Xin! is a potential award-winner. There is synergy between the words and pictures and its themes of safety, fear and freedom are told with power and nuance.


Xavier in the Meantime by Kate Gordon (Riveted Press)

Joy Lawn interviews Kate Gordon about her books for children (extract from interview in Magpies magazine, May 2022)

Tiny Moments of Joy” with Kate Gordon

Even though there is sadness. It’s not all sadness, and the sadness there is doesn’t feel like it’s without hope. That’s the things about being a kid, in books at least. There’s still hope. There’s always hope. (Aster’s Good, Right Things)

How incredible and profound is children’s literature. As Kate Gordon shows in her books, it can shake us upside down, put us in the shoes of others and open our hearts.

Kate Gordon’s Aster’s Good, Right Things (Riveted Press) won the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers in 2021. It is an exceptional novel: a beautifully written and sensitive portrayal of childhood anxiety. This, and its sequel Xavier in the Meantime,are reminiscent of Glenda Millard’s Kingdom of Silk series where lyrical writing and sensory imagery create wistfulness, melancholy and pain alongside beauty, hope, light and tiny moments of joy. Both authors address serious concerns in the lives of children, with Kate’s books having a more sorrowful core.

Kate also writes for young adults (Girl Running, Boy Falling is a standout) and younger children (Juno Jones) but in this interview we will focus on her books for older children: her books about Aster and Xavier (Riveted Press/Yellow Brick Books) and her Direleafe Hall series (University of Queensland Press)  

Your novels Aster’s Good, Right Things and Xavier in the Meantime show deep understanding, concern and care for those with anxiety and depression. Why have you written about child characters with these illnesses and how have you crystallised something of these conditions into stories?

As a child growing up with intense anxiety and, at times, severe depression, I never felt comfortable expressing what I was going through, because it didn’t feel “normal”. Nobody I knew, none of my friends or family, seemed to feel like I did. I was incredibly isolated, especially in primary school, because I seemed to think differently – and definitely behaved differently – from the other kids around me. Now I’ve been diagnosed as autistic, I have some answers for why this was but, at the time, I felt like a “freak”. None of the adults in my life thought there was anything to worry about, because I excelled academically and in extra-curricular activities, and the prevailing wisdom around autism and mental illness in the eighties and nineties would have said that being autistic and academically gifted did not go hand in hand. None of the books I read or movies I watched spoke to me. I never saw myself reflected in the media. Now, it’s a passion and privilege of mine to write books for kids like I was, so they know they’re not alone and they’re just as “normal” as anyone else.

How do you balance sadness and pain with moments of joy in these two books?

I mean, that’s life, isn’t it? Joy and pain and so intrinsically linked, it would be impossible to feel one without the other. When I’m writing, I’m just trying to write life and so often in life happiness and heartbreak can coexist in a single moment. The same should be true for literature or else it doesn’t feel real.

Other material to come soon


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